JC / Railbird

Where They Prepped

With Uncle Mo back in training (the early Derby favorite breezed three furlongs in 39:95 at Palm Meadows this morning) and the Holy Bull Stakes (last Derby winner, Barbaro ’06) kicking off Gulfstream’s Derby prep series this afternoon, it seemed a good time to look back at the stakes in which the top three Kentucky Derby finishers of the last 10 years prepped (wins are bolded in the spreadsheet below). Considering how much prep schedules and training regimens have changed in just the past decade, it’s practically quaint that there was a time a Derby prospect could start in both the Wood Memorial and the Florida Derby, as did 2003 runner-up Empire Maker and 2001 winner Monarchos. And the Tampa Bay Derby, run in March, has become such a key prep, it’s surprising that its rise only dates back to Bluegrass Cat in 2006.

It was Street Sense, though, who in 2007 elevated the Tampa Bay Derby into a race that trainer Todd Pletcher is now seriously considering for Uncle Mo’s first start of the year. Street Sense won at Tampa, then lost the Blue Grass, and is one of six Kentucky Derby winners of the past 10 years who didn’t win his final prep. Of the four who did, three were undefeated going into the Derby, including Smarty Jones, who in 2004 was the first undefeated winner of the Kentucky Derby since Seattle Slew in 1977. Barbaro accomplished the same feat in 2006, then Big Brown did in 2008. Since 2001, there have been five unbeaten horses among 188 Derby starters — the three Derby winners already mentioned, plus Curlin in 2007 (he finished third), and Showing Up in 2006 (sixth). Make of this what you will: As Derby prospects make fewer starts, and their spots are more carefully chosen, there’s a greater chance an undefeated horse (or horses) will enter the Derby. And yet, a record of three wins and four in-the-money finishes from five such starters isn’t to be dismissed.

Related: Historical criteria and Derby winners’ prep schedules, 1998-2010.